New Dangers from 'Safe' Gases
Published on Thursday, June 6, 2002 by the Inter Press Service
New Dangers from 'Safe' Gases
Emissions of what have been considered 'safe' gases are rising to dangerous new levels, a new report says.
by Sanjay Suri

LONDON - Emissions of what have been considered 'safe' gases are rising to dangerous new levels, a new report says.

Fluorinated greenhouse gases are growing so rapidly that by 2050 their impact could be as much as 15 percent of warming effect of all greenhouse gases measured in 1990 - the baseline for the Kyoto Protocol, according to a report published Wednesday by the MultiSectoral Initiative on Potent Industrial Greenhouse Gases.

This means by 2050 they would more than cancel out the reductions planned under the Kyoto protocol.

The report titled 'F Is for Forgotten' by the independent group attacks the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) for promoting these harmful gases as an alternative to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in an effort to implement the Montreal Protocol. That agreement is concerned only with ozone depleting gases, the report says.

''The Montreal Protocol and its 'policy community' needs a total shake-up to make it genuinely atmosphere friendly rather than ozone friendly at the expense of the global climate,'' says author of the report Chris Rose, former deputy director of Greenpeace UK and strategic advisor to Greenpeace International.

The report criticizes UNEP and the fluorocarbon industry for portraying these hydrofluorocarbon gases (HFCs) as ''benign'' or an ''environmentally friendly'' replacement for CFCs now being phased out under the Montreal protocol.

These replacement gases ''are hundreds to tens of thousands times more potent than carbon dioxide in their global warming potential,'' the report says.

UNEP spokesman in Geneva Michael Williams rejected the charge against the UN agency. ''The report reflects complete confusion about how UNEP works,'' Williams told IPS.

''UNEP provides technical information but does not provide solutions.''

All solutions come with their own problems, he said. ''Technical and detailed discussions are continuing on the best way to move forward.''

The Montreal Protocol signed in 1987 sought to ban CFC gases that were found to be depleting the protective layer of ozone gas in the stratosphere above the atmosphere.

The chlorine in these gases released from the refrigeration industry broke apart at those heights, eating into the ozone layer. The ozone layer protects the earth from the sun's harmful ultra-violet rays.

The CFCs were replaced by HCFC gases, with the hydrogen added. With that addition the gases broke down at lower altitudes, causing less damage to the ozone layer, but not eliminating the danger. The HCFCs then began to make way for HFCs (hydroflurocarbons) that had no damaging chlorine in them.

''But HFCs are very powerful greenhouse gases,'' Rose told IPS. The most dangerous among them is HFC 134a, commonly used in car air-conditioning in the U.S. and used increasingly in Europe, he said. ''Weight for weight, this is 1,300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.''

The use of HFCs is rising rapidly, Rose said. There are at least six factories under construction for production of HFCs, several of them in developing countries, he added.

''These moves so far have been made under the Montreal Protocol which confined itself to protection of the ozone layer,'' Rose said. ''But the Montreal Protocol is effectively at loggerheads with the Kyoto protocol on climate change.''

There is an agreement to phase out HCFCs already. Several European countries want that phase-out program speeded up because safer substitutes to HCFCs are now available.

The move to speed up substitution is being resisted by the U.S. government on the grounds that industry has already invested in HCFCs. But HFCs are not subject to any phasing out program, Williams said.

The report details the ways the lobbying efforts of the fluorocarbon industry to produce more HFCs have proved successful.

''UNEP's advice is supposed to be objective but it's consistently biased,'' says Rose. ''It makes obstacles out of routine safety measures and warns against using hydrocarbons though the record in practice does not support this.''

The report details the case of EN378, a draft standard about to be reconsidered at a meeting in Switzerland on June 6 and 7. Drawn up by committees dominated by HFC makers and users, this standard would effectively prohibit 80 per cent of the hydrocarbon-based (non-HFC) air-conditioning systems on the market, the report says.

''If this happens then the commitments of companies such Coca-Cola, Unilever, Body Shop, British Petroleum, Tesco, Sainsburys and Scottish & Newcastle (brewers) to use hydrocarbons instead of HFCs, will become impossible to implement.''

The report recommends that governments should cap the production of each gas, stop the construction of more factories to produce HFCs, set phase-out dates, require the systematic use of alternatives to HFCs and promote substitution technologies for all F-gases.

The report demands that UNEP put a prominent health warning on all its literature and web pages where HFCs are raised in the context of substitution for HCFCs, pointing out that HFCs are very powerful global warming gases that cause climate change.

UNEP should classify HFCs as transitional, not long or medium term replacements for CFCs or HCFCs, the report says. It must ''stop using misleading terms like ozone friendly and environmentally safer if these are applied to climate-unfriendly and climate-dangerous chemicals.'' It must also ”stop referring to HFCs as 'the preferred' alternative.''

UNEP must support policies and advice to help developing countries move towards the Danish, Austrian, German model of phasing out HFCs rather than the American model of HFC usage, the report says.

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